Young Athletes participant Andrew doing his favourite activity at Werribee Gymnastics Club
By Andrea Phillips
SPECIAL OLYMPICS Australia is poised for national rollout of a new program that shows how effective coaching can help young children diagnosed with likely motor skill deficiency to develop proficiently.
Special Olympics designed its Young Athletes program to support children with conditions such as Fragile X Syndrome, who experience challenges developing movement and social skills and are frequently less active than children without disabilities.
Children who have Fragile X syndrome generally have low muscle tone, lack of core strength, and coordination and balance issues.
Wendy Bruce, Executive Director of Fragile X Association of Australia, said parents are sometimes informed that their child diagnosed with Fragile X will struggle to reach physical development milestones such as riding a bike, or even kicking a ball.
“A program which develops foundational movement skills and provides a physical outlet in an inclusive and social setting will help counter these deficits,” Bruce said.
Dee Stark, Kindergym and Inclusion Co-ordinator at Werribee Gymnastics Club in Victoria, ran a pilot Young Athletes program late last year. A young participant named Andrew had low core strength, was not a confident jumper and struggled to hang on equipment like monkey bars.
“Throughout the program, we worked on shoulder strength and by the end, Andrew was hanging and swinging on bars. His favourite activity was jumping from a mini trampoline over a pool noodle held by the coach and landing on a crash mat.”
Stark said many families do not realise that children with disability can develop core strength and motor skills through sport.
- Wendy Bruce, Executive Director of Fragile X Association of Australia
Children who have Fragile X syndrome often exceed expectations and make continued progress in physical activities and learning right throughout their lives, Bruce said.
“Early interventions and the continued belief and committed support from the community make a significant difference to what they will achieve.”
Young Athletes is an all-abilities program that introduces children aged three to eight to a sporting environment in a fun and safe way. Specially trained coaches guide children through play-based sessions in which they learn movements they will use in sports and daily life, such as running, jumping, throwing, and balancing.
Children also develop the social competencies they need to be active with others, such as asking for help, taking turns, or being a spectator.
Special Olympics Australia’s National Young Athletes Manager, Naazmi Johnston, said that the program allows children to progress at their own pace.
“There isn’t an emphasis on milestones based on age, which can discourage parents.”
Parents are encouraged to support their children’s development through play-at-home activities that do not involve special equipment.
“The beauty of the program is how easy it is to play in different environments,” Johnston said. “Parents can easily take the course resources and learning to help their children develop the fundamental movement skills through play at home.”
- Special Olympics Australia’s National Young Athletes Manager, Naazmi Johnston
Bruce said the Young Athletes program provides parents with a valuable opportunity to connect with other families whose children have developmental delay or intellectual disability and celebrate their achievements.
Stark agrees. “Parents like participating in programs where they do not need to constantly explain about their child’s condition or behaviours. Young Athletes is a supportive program, with families all coming together for the common good of developing their children’s love of sport – regardless of ability.”
Young Athletes programs delivered overseas through the Special Olympics movement have shown that participation helps parents to better understand their child’s capabilities. Research revealed that after participating, parents’ expectations of their child with intellectual disability increased, as did their willingness to bring their child into social settings.
It also showed that children who participated in Young Athletes achieved a seven-month gain in motor skills after just two months in the program, with follow-up evaluation demonstrating that these developmental advantages were maintained.
Program partners Special Olympics Australia and Gymnastics Australia have been successfully piloting Young Athletes in NSW, the ACT, and Victoria since mid-2019. The programs are delivered by Gymnastics Australia coaches accredited in Special Olympics Australia’s Young Athletes Coaching Course, which can be completed online through Special Olympics Australia’s free e-learning platform, SOA Learn.
An early pilot evaluation by La Trobe University’s Centre for Sport and Social Impact found that children improved their movement skills, including balance and coordination.
Special Olympics Australia and Gymnastics Australia recently extended their partnership and committed to growing the Young Athletes program nationally.
Friendship and fun for young athletes and their families
Dee Stark, Kindergym and Inclusion Co-ordinator at Werribee Gymnastics Club in Victoria, ran a Young Athletes program late last year. The participants were a combination of preschool children who had either autism, Down syndrome, or no disability.
Stark saw how Young Athletes provided an inclusive and supportive environment where children with and without intellectual disability benefited from playing together.
“We had two boys, Andrew and Xavier, who both had autism, and two boys, Finlay and Yun, who had no disability in the program. With consistent reinforcement, we saw Andrew and Xavier learning from Finlay and Yun the expected behaviour. Friendships developed during the program and the four boys all looked forward to seeing each other and playing together.”
“The boys would bring a footy and have a kick together after class. By the end of the program, they had enough social and sporting skills that they needed very minimal parental supervision. This gave their parents time to have a chat.”
Young Athletes provided a pathway for Andrew to transition into another inclusive gymnastics program, ASD PlayGym, for two- to five-year-old children with autism. Stark said that through the skills Andrew learnt in Young Athletes, he became a leader in ASD Playgym.
“The younger children in this program looked up to Andrew, and we were able to teach skills such as taking turns, with Andrew leading the way.”
Andrew’s brother also has autism. Stark said his mother has observed that Andrew’s motor skills are significantly more developed than his brother’s were at the same age, which she puts down to Andrew participating in sport programs.
Combining the transformative power of sport and a holistic approach to athlete well-being enables Special Olympics Australia to support a better life for people with an intellectual disability.
Special Olympics Australia strives to ensure that everyone living with an intellectual disability can participate in sport. Our dedicated network of volunteers creates accessible sports training, coaching and competition opportunities that allow people with an intellectual disability to reach their personal best – in sport and in life.
A play-based program for children with and without intellectual disabilities aged three to eight, Young Athletes focuses on activities that support physical and social development and creates a transition pathway into a more structured sporting environment. The Young Athletes Coaching Course is an online resource to equip community coaches, educators, and parents to teach young children fundamental movement skills. It is freely available on Special Olympics Australia’s e-learning platform, SOA Learn.
Other courses currently available on SOA Learn include:
SOA Learn has a growing number of registered users, currently totalling more than 3,000.